Fitting a climbing shoe is a tricky business. Too much space allows your foot to slide, reducing precision and confidence on the wall. Size too tight, and you’ll be gritting your teeth all the way to the top.
Break-in is an important part of the process. This article covers the best ways to break in your shoes, along with a few things you should keep in mind for proper fit and sizing.
2 Tips for Breaking in Climbing Shoes – Before You Begin
1. Know Thy Shoes
Climbing shoes vary widely in material, construction, and style. A pair of flat leather lace-up shoes will break in much differently than a pair of synthetic, downturned, velcro-closure shoes.
Leather shoes will stretch much more than synthetic shoes during the break-in process. In general, synthetic shoes will only stretch about a half size, while leather shoes may stretch a full size or more. Shoes with an unlined upper (which are usually leather) will stretch more than shoes with a lined upper.
2. Size Right the First Time
Choose the size for your shoes based on the above considerations. If you’re buying a pair of synthetic shoes, you won’t gain much extra room from breaking them in, so it’s best to start close to your true size.
Consider your intended usage as well. Your all-day multipitch shoes should fit more comfortably than your try-hard bouldering shoes. Not sure which shoes to buy? Head over to our roundup of the best climbing shoes.
Different climbers have different size preferences, but please: try not to destroy your feet by sizing too small. Cramming your feet into tiny shoes can create lasting damage in your feet and toes. When it comes to performing at your peak, comfort matters as much as precision — try to find a balance of the two.
Ideally, the break-in process for climbing shoes should be relatively smooth. If possible, stick to the first two methods. They are the easiest and result in the best fit.
Some shoes require a longer break-in, and climbers with especially large feet may have no choice but to size down aggressively. In these cases, the latter methods will stretch shoes out more quickly.
1. Wear Them
What You Need
- Your shoes
- Plastic wrap or plastic bags (optional)
1. Put Them On
It sounds obvious, but the best and easiest way to break in your new shoes is to wear them.
If your shoes are too tight to climb out of the box, just put them on and hang out. Watch some TV. Read a book. Your feet will warm the shoes and begin to stretch them out.
Warning: You can walk around in climbing shoes to break them in, but it isn’t a great idea. Walking puts unnecessary stress on the structure of the shoe, and it can degrade the camber or shape.
2. Climb In Them
If you can, start climbing in your shoes right away. Give your feet breaks in between burns, especially in the first session or two.
3. Use Plastic Wrap (Optional)
If your shoes are too tight to slip on easily, grab some saran wrap or a plastic bag. Place the plastic over your heel (or your whole foot, if necessary).
Your foot should slide into the shoe more easily. Decreasing friction allows your foot to find its natural seat in the shoe, and the plastic adds a thin layer to help stretch out the upper.
Keep wearing and climbing in your shoes as much as you can. If you’ve sized well, any discomfort should disappear over the first few sessions. This is my personal favorite break-in method, and it should work for most shoes.
2. Heat Them Up
What You Need
- Your shoes
- A hair dryer (or other heat source)
1. Heat Your Shoes
Use a heat source — preferably a hair dryer — to get your shoes nice and warm. I prefer to do this while wearing the shoes, because it helps the shoes mold to your feet (and it feels nice, too).
Other heat sources will also work. I’ve heard of some climbers putting their shoes in the oven, but be careful — too much heat applied for too long can melt the adhesive holding your shoe together.
2. Wear Them
Once your shoes are nice and warm, get them on and wiggle your feet around. If possible, climb in them.
These steps can be repeated multiple times to help your shoes stretch.
3. Hot Shower
When extreme measures are required, this is the best way to stretch out stubborn shoes. This method works better on leather shoes than synthetic shoes.
What You Need
- Your shoes
- A shower (or bathtub)
- Newspaper or fabric for stuffing
1. Wear Shoes Under Hot Water
By any means necessary, get your shoes on your feet. Hop in a hot shower or run your tub faucet over your feet. The hot water will make the uppers more pliable.
While your feet are under the water, move them around. Wiggle your toes and ankles. Get the shoe bending with your foot.
Stay in the water for at least a few minutes. Your shoes should be soaked.
Warning: This method often causes dye from the shoes to bleed. Your feet may be temporarily stained. Be careful not to stain your carpets or furniture after you leave the shower. Losing some dye won’t hurt your shoes, but it may cause them to change color slightly.
2. Let Shoes Dry Partially
After wearing your shoes in hot water, let them dry halfway. They should still be warm and damp, but no longer waterlogged. If you’re willing, you can do this step with the shoes on your feet. Otherwise, it’s fine to take them off for a bit.
3. Wear Them
If you took your shoes off, put them back on. If you can, climb in them.
Note: Check with your gym management before climbing on their walls in damp shoes. It’s best to do this on a home wall.
If you don’t have a wall available, just wear your shoes for a little while. Move your feet around again to help the shoe mold to your shape.
4. Stuff and Dry
Take off your shoes and fill them with fabric or newspaper. This keeps the shape from collapsing as the shoes dry.
Allow your shoes to dry fully. When you try them next, the uppers should be noticeably looser.
4. Repeat if Necessary
As usual, you can repeat this process if need be.
4. Freezer Bags
If you need some serious stretch in your shoes, this is the fastest way to do it. Because this method doesn’t rely on your feet, the results may not be as tailored to your individual shape. For that reason, I look at this strategy as a last resort.
What You Need
- Your shoes
- Plastic bags
1. Fill Plastic Bags with Water
Fill two plastic bags with enough water to stuff your shoes. This takes a little trial and error — you want the filled bags to be roughly the size of your feet. Make sure the bags are sealed up tight!
2. Fill Your Shoes
Slip the water-filled bags into your shoes.
3. Freeze Your Shoes
Throw both shoes in the freezer. Water expands when it freezes, so the frozen bags will stretch out your shoe uppers.
3. Thaw and Wear
Remove your shoes from the freezer and let the bags thaw. Once they’re thawed, remove them from your shoes.
Try on your shoes. The freeze should have created extra space. If you need to, you can repeat this method or move on to one of the other methods to complete the break-in process.
Climbing Shoe Care
Climbing shoes are resilient, but it’s best to take good care of them. A few good practices will extend the life of your shoes.
Store your shoes in a cool, dry place. A day or two in the back of your car probably won’t cause any damage, but heat and sun can warp shoe construction over time.
If possible, allow your shoes to dry before storage after each session. Storing your shoes while they’re sweaty can trap moisture, which opens the door to mold (and is generally gross). Say hello to smelly climbing shoes.
Whenever possible, remove your shoes when you aren’t climbing. Belaying and walking in climbing shoes accelerates wear and decreases the lifespan of the shoes.
If your shoes ever get especially gross, you can give them a gentle hand wash.
The rubber sole is almost always the first part of a climbing shoe to wear out. Getting a resole is a cost-effective way to extend the life of your shoes.
It’s best to resole before you’ve started to wear through the rand of the shoe. Make sure to keep an eye on your rubber and send in your shoes before it’s too late. For more information, check out our rundown on resoling climbing shoes.